Fate has – at last – caught up with scandal-prone UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The key agents of his doom were some of the ablest and highest-profile members of his cabinet. The resignations – within minutes of each other – of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid on Tuesday prompted what some have dubbed “a constitutional coup.”
In their letters of resignation, both men focused on Johnson’s integrity and judgment – or rather, the lack thereof. That prompted similar moves by multiple other members of Johnson’s government.
Still, a coup de grace was needed. That was delivered by Johnson’s own replacement for Sunak, the very newly minted Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi.
“Prime Minister: this is not sustainable and it will only get worse…you must do the right thing and go now,” Zahawi wrote in a public letter – the same weapon deployed by Sunak and Javid – on Thursday.
Only then did the formerly bulletproof premier realize the game was up. That afternoon Johnson admitted, “The herd instinct is powerful, and when the herd moves, it moves,” adding, “In politics, no one is remotely indispensable.”
Sunak is of Indian ancestry, Javid of Pakistani, and Zahawi, Kurdish. All three have respected political careers; all three are seen as runners in the race to replace Johnson. That opens up the enticing prospect that an Anglo-Asian premier may, for the first time, take the UK’s national helm.
Why enticing? The election of Barack Obama to the top position in the US government by no means ended American racism, and there is likely no magic bullet for its British version. However, an Anglo-Asia leader would be a powerful symbol that the UK – formerly, an arch imperial power, and subsequently a nation still wracked by classism and racism – is advancing into a more inclusive future.
But it will not happen immediately.
Johnson will – at least according to current plans – cling on in 10 Downing Street until a new leader of the Conservative Party is chosen in September or October. The chosen one will lead the UK until the next general election – to be held, at the latest, in January 2025.
In the meantime, sit back, pour yourself a large gin and tonic and prepare to enjoy. There will be furious backs-and-forths in the chamber, daggers stabbed into colleagues’ backs behind closed doors, and bloody leaks splattering the pages of the press.
Beyond this entertaining political carnage, ultra-serious issues are in play.
The future trajectory of the post-Brexit UK, a G7 economy, is far from certain. There are economic storms bearing down on the country now, and questions hang over the country’s relationship with both the EU, and its own constituent parts: The futures of both Northern Ireland and Scotland in the union are not assured.
In Western Europe, Johnson has been the most florid supporter of Kiev, and a strong proponent of “Global Britain” – an initiative that has seen the resumption of British gunboat diplomacy in Asian waters.
Even though his successor will hail from Johnson’s Conservative Party, it is far from certain that he or she will be as aggressive as Johnson in pursuing these agendas.
Off you go, BoJo
Love him or hate him, Johnson – full name, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – was the most entertaining British premier of modern times.
Tousle-haired and sack suited, boisterous and buffoonish, he was a wielder of memorable phrases and a deployer off-hand comments. Conveying a good-natured, humorous face to the world, “BoJo,” 58, was almost a caricature of a certain type of upper-class Englishman.
And he had political skills.
A thundering Eurosceptic, he was the man who “Got Brexit done” – then spanked a particularly hapless opposition into the ground in 2019, winning with a landslide general election victory.
Though his early response to Covid-19 was both catastrophic and deadly, his fast adoption and rollout of vaccinations led to the UK being one of the first countries to exit the pandemic and “live with Covid.”
But though you could take the man out of the pub, you could not take the pub out of the man. His party-loving ways got the better of him when it became clear that he and his chums were knocking them back in 10 Downing Street while the rest of Britain was in Covid lockdown.
The opposition, for once, seemed to have Johnson’s head in their crosshairs – but they never pulled the trigger.
Johnson was saved by the intrusion of some deadly serious geopolitics in February. As Russian armor rolled into Ukraine, Johnson emerged as a powerful champion of Volodymr Zelenksy.
British-supplied anti-tank rockets were one of the key weapons that enabled Zelensky’s defense of Kiev, leading a grateful Zelensky to address the British parliament – the first in a series of such appearances – than to greet Johnson in his capital.
With the public distracted, Johnson’s skin was saved. But now the Ukraine War has turned against Kiev and Johnson’s Teflon hide has finally been holed.
Johnson’s penchant for blustering, lying and wriggling, before finally admitting fault and apologizing, had always been a bad trait – one on full display in the “Partygate” scandal and one that his humor, wordsmithery and bonhommie could not camoflage.
But it was not his only fault; his judgement on personalities had always been dodgy, too. The latter failing was most spectacularly seen in his fallout with his closest advisor Dominic Cumings, who dished the dirt on his former patron in the most savage fashion.
But it was Johnson’s appointment of a sexual predator as a party whip that was the final straw. The camel’s back was broken when the abuser in question – drunk, and in full view of fellow parliamentarians at a London club – groped a pair of staffers.
Johnson’s wriggling over the whip infuriated both public and party. The men who led the revolution against Johnson have cleaner records.
The Empire Strikes Back
Sunak, a former investment banker, won kudos for his financial schemes – including furloughs, job retention and subsidized eating out – that helped keep a Covid-ravaged economy afloat. But though superbly presented, his well-to-do background and questions over his taxes could work against him.
Javid comes from more humble origins and is noted for his integrity. He had taken prominent positions before Johnson’s administration, in which he was appointed chancellor. He resigned from that position – opening the door to Sunak – after Cumings and Johnson ordered him to ditch his advisors.
But Johnson could not ignore Javid’s talents and lured him back into government as health secretary to oversee the UK’s generally successful Covid exit.
Zahawi, now chancellor and formerly a tech businessman, was Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Vaccine Deployment, one of the Johnson administration’s biggest successes.
The race to replace Johnson has not yet begun – at least, not formally. But according to the BBC, Sunak, Javid and Nahawi are all eying Downing Street. Moreover, Attorney General Suella Braverman, of Indian ancestry, is reportedly set to run, though her fealty to Johnson would work against her.
It is no foregone conclusion that any of these Anglo-Asians will run – let alone win. There are plenty of white MPs who could win the race – including Defense Secretary Ben Wallace Trade Secretary Penny Mordaunt or Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
At the time of writing, the bookmakers have Wallace holding a narrow lead, with Sunak in close second.
And though many Brits might like to see tolerance as an especially British virtue, their society is notoriously class-ridden. Racism, too, has long haunted the former imperial power.
In 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, warning against mass immigration from the British Commonwealth. “Paki-bashing” – i.e. racial assaults on people of Pakistani ancestry – was notorious in the 1970s. And in 1998, an 18-year-old black youth, Stephen Lawrence, was murdered by white racists in a case that shook the nation and raised questions over judicial procedures.
Against this backdrop, the fact that the establishment, right-wing Conservative Party has not only embraced so many Anglo-Asians but offered them some of the choicest ministerial portfolios, suggests that the race barrier – in politics, at least- is getting lower.
Quo vadis, UK?
Whoever steps into Johnson’s shoes is not going to face an easy stroll. There are increasing signals that the UK will slide into recession this year, and the Bank of England’s June 22 Financial Policy Report paints a grim picture of upcoming conditions.
The war in Ukraine is disrupting food and energy prices, while growth is weakening due to inflation and China’s zero-Covid policy. But these are global problems; the UK has problems of its own.
SMEs are suffering from higher debt than before Covid; higher interest rates will be a further blow. The bank anticipates both higher inflation – 11% or more – and higher unemployment ahead. Brits are expected to face the second biggest contraction in household income since 1964, the report found.
Energy bills are particularly high. In April, domestic energy bills soared after the price cap was increased by 54% to 1,971 pounds ($2,362) for the average household, according to the BBC, with experts believe this could spike again in October, to around 2,800 pounds.
The UK has been one of the biggest supporters of the war in Ukraine, worth 6.2 billion euros ($6.28 billion) to date, according to Statista. For a country with a $2.7 trillion GDP and a 2021-2022 defense budget of $50 billion, that is not back-breaking.
But the new PM may have to cope with war-weariness setting in – either during the current phase, which is turning against Kiev, or later in the year, when energy inflation hits home and the weather turns cold.
That could force a change in the UK’s stance toward Ukraine: From highly supportive, to urging Kiev to bow to Russia’s demands in peace negotiations.
One aspect of “Global Britain” is the UK’s expansion of its naval influence eastward.
Amid much fanfare, the maiden voyage of UK’s brand new aircraft carrier was to East Asia in 2021. Since, then, London has inked the AUKUS deal with Canberra and Washington to supply Australia with nuclear submarines, and Johnson this year started negotiations on a defense deal with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
But does the straitened military of the UK – particularly in the face of the rising Russian threat in Europe – have the ability to cover both the Atlantic and Pacific?
That is questionable. On its Asia foray, the British carrier included Dutch and US vessels in its escort group, and due to shortages in its own flight, had US aircraft on deck. The voyage also lost one of the UK’s precious F35 stealth fighters to a flight-deck accident.
The two patrol boats the UK has stationed in the region since the carrier visit have failed to inspire.
One suffered an engine failure in the Pacific, and Asia Times has learned of the poor impression it made on one regional admiral during a port visit. Compared to Beijing’s Navy – which has just launched its third, 71,000-ton carrier – the brace of 2,000-ton offshore patrol vessels hardly send a message of strength and resolution.
More positively, it seems likely that any Conservative premier will support an ongoing campaign to sign free trade deals with all possible parties – London even seeks to join the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim deal. But there is little appetite for a much-hoped-for FTA with the United States.
And the UK’s relationship with the EU is set for yet another ice-cold plunge.
In what can now be clearly seen as a mendacious political tactic to enable Brexit, London signed a deal with Brussels that enabled Northern Ireland to retain open borders with the EU. Johnson has since signaled his intention to renege on this, infuriating Dublin and Brussels, irking Washington and – potentially – reigniting terrorism.
It will be a major challenge for the next premier to finesse this nasty mess while maintaining the UK’s reputation as a rule-following member of the international community.
As if this raft of challenges were not enough, there are also the simmering stews of “leave” sentiment in both Northern Ireland and Scotland. That means the next premier, could just enter the history books as the leader who oversaw the dissolution of the UK.
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